If you managed to read between the lines of my last video, you may have gathered that I didn’t particularly like the Justice League movie.
Shocking, I know...
There are many issues with this film: the lackluster MacGuffin, the boring villain, the lack of chemistry between the characters. The list goes on, but the biggest problem by far is that the movie...well, does not have a story.
Or rather, the movie has a chance of telling a story, but squanders it before it gets off the ground.
Now, before I get into that, let’s just agree on one thing. The dramatic question of the movie — as in, the thing that is at stake, the problem that needs to be solved — is this:
“Can these people from various walks of life come together and learn to work as a team?”
Sure, on a plot level the movie is about stopping a freaky alien monster from getting his magic jewelry boxes, but on a story and character level, it’s about working as a team.
It’s a simple premise for a movie, but it worked like gangbusters for The Avengers, as well as some of the greatest films of all time (see: Seven Samurai). It’s simple because there is really only one “beat” the film needs to hit before the climax.
It needs to show the team failing to work together.
The Avengers hits this out of the park. In that one movie, Iron Man and Thor fight, and then Thor and Captain America fight, and then everyone gets in an argument, and then Hulk nearly kills Black Widow, and then Hulk nearly kills Thor, and then Black Widow and Hawkeye fight, and then Captain America and Iron Man try to fix the ship together, but suck at it.
All of this tells the audience one thing: “This isn’t a team. It’s a time bomb,” as Bruce Banner put it.
This is what makes the climax of the movie so cathartic. We’ve seen them fail, bicker, and brawl, but now the pressure cooker of an alien invasion forces six distinct characters to meld into one unit. The moment is punctuated with this famous shot of them standing in a circle. Visually, the movie is screaming at you, “SEE! They’re a team now! Hurray!”
Justice League fails at the setup, and so there’s no joy when the payoff comes.
The moment I’m talking about happens about an hour into the runtime.
Our newly formed posse of superpeople/billionaires are fighting the CGI monstrosity that is Steppenwolf. Batman has spent the whole film asking people to be his friends, and now they’re about to face their first test.
The Flash pulls Batman aside and we get a glimmer of an actual story. And by that I mean an internal character story. The Flash tells Bruce, a man he admires, that he is afraid. He has “never done battle before.” Wisely, Batman tells the Flash to “just save one person.”
That’s a great little moment.
Unfortunately, it’s resolved about two minutes later.
The Flash saves one person, finds his courage, and then starts doing EVERYTHING. His fear is gone, and with it, so is the chance at a real story. The nail in the coffin is a shot that’s featured in many of the trailers.
Wonder Woman is falling while battling the villain and can’t reach her sword. So, the Flash runs along the walls super fast and nudges the sword toward her. Visually, this tells the audience, “SEE! They’re a team now! Hurray!”
Except there’s still an hour left in the movie. An hour of punching. So much punching…
If you’re looking for one reason why this movie received nothing more than a shrug from most audiences and critics — why it did not resonate — it’s because it did not properly set up the stakes of its story.
We needed to see the members of the League get in each other’s way. They needed to not just butt heads in dialogue, but fail to coordinate their efforts at every turn. You’ve got one character who controls the water and another who is a robot. Where’s the scene of Aquaman flooding the area, only to cause Cyborg to malfunction?
In other words, the fact that they will eventually act in sync is never in doubt, so nothing is at stake. And if there isn’t a problem that needs solving — both on an internal and an external level — then there is literally no story to speak of.